The Outlook for Environmental Policy in Washington

A “mandate for change” was the mantra that symbolized the campaign of President-elect Barack Obama, the soon-to-be 44th President of the United States.

By Dawn C. Kristof, WWEMA President

A “mandate for change” was the mantra that symbolized the campaign of President-elect Barack Obama, the soon-to-be 44th President of the United States. The American people voiced their displeasure at the polls and sent a clear message for fundamental change in the direction our country is headed, from foreign policy and the war, to health care and the economy.

What about the environment? Other than climate change, not much mention was made of the environment by either party’s candidate during this protracted campaign season. It remains to be seen to what degree the Obama administration will fundamentally change the way we manage our environment, but change will occur and from all indications, for the better.

I don’t believe I am going out on a limb with this prediction, given the less-than-stellar record of the Bush administration when it came to the environment, from ignoring the advice of the scientific community on key regulatory proposals, to dramatically undercutting research budgets and resources needed to accurately evaluate human and ecological health risks. Even during these financially trying times, I am confident that the Obama administration will reverse these trends and begin reinvesting in our Nation’s environmental programs.

His transition teams have already been hard at work meeting with regulatory officials and analyzing agency initiatives in order to have a plan in place when President-elect Obama takes office. At the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the talk has focused primarily on the economic stimulus package as it relates to infrastructure funding, followed by discussions on climate change strategy and adaptation plans; regulating nutrient controls in agriculture; restoring our Nation’s great water bodies, such as the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes; ramping up enforcement resources; and reducing exposure to contaminants in drinking water, particularly perchlorate.

These are among the top environmental issues that will likely be acted upon by the Obama administration in its first year in office. Other issues that may follow later, which President-elect Obama made reference to during his campaign, include restoring funding for the state clean water and drinking water revolving fund programs; greater monitoring and regulating of confined animal feeding operations; wetlands preservation and restoration; and water conservation and efficiency measures.

That’s just one part of the equation. While the executive branch is charged with carrying out the law, it is the legislative branch that has the ultimate responsibility for writing the law. It is here, in Congress, where change is also likely to occur, hopefully for the better as it pertains to the environment.

The Democrats increased their majority in the Congress, having gained 22 seats in the House and seven in the Senate, with five House races and one Senate race still undecided as of this writing. Though they were unable to get the 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority they needed in the Senate, it is anticipated that the Democrats will be joined by the two Independents – Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) – in advancing their party’s agenda. The Republicans will also likely be more willing to work with the Democrats and less driven to block measures since they no longer need to protect President Bush’s interests on Capitol Hill.

While all committee ratios will be increased in favor of the Democrats, the only significant change in leadership among the House committees with jurisdiction over environmental issues will be in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, with jurisdiction over the Safe Drinking Water Act. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) won a bid to take over the chairmanship of this committee from Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), the second longest-serving member in history. Waxman’s more liberal views likely will be reflected in legislation governing climate change and energy conservation measures.

In the other chamber, Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) will relinquish his Senate Commerce Committee chairmanship, with jurisdiction over the Coast Guard, in order to become chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Inouye has been a long-time champion of legislation to establish national standards governing ballast water discharges. His stepping down as chair of the Commerce Committee places the future of this legislation in limbo, as the likely new chairman of the committee, Senator John Rockefeller (D-WV), would probably not view this issue of paramount importance to his state.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, with jurisdiction over both the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, will lose three important advocates of the environment next year with Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) having accepted another job offer; Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) being forced to step down from this committee as punishment for having campaigned for Senator John McCain (R-NM) during the elections; and Senator John Warner (R-VA) retiring from Congress.

Looking ahead at the environmental priorities of the 111th Congress, they are expected to be water infrastructure financing, followed by climate change, climate change, climate change. After tackling these two issues, Congress may then turn its attention toward refining the Clean Water Act (expanding the scope of waters protected by this law); reauthorizing the Water Resources Development Act to maintain waterways serving U.S. ports; providing more support for Farm Bill conservation programs; and reinvigorating resources of federal agencies.

Expectations are that the Obama administration and the 111th Congress will work in close coordination to ramp up environmental policies and their enforcement, while increasing resources for research and infrastructure – all positive trends for companies serving the water and wastewater industry. WW

About the author:
Dawn Kristof Champney is president of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association, a 100-year old national trade organization which represents the interests of companies that manufacture and provide technologies used in municipal and industrial water supply and wastewater treatment applications, worldwide.

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